It's only just begun...
OUR world is about to change forever. The technology revolution, which brought the personal computer and Internet into our schools, is about to enter its next phase.
Digital learning, or e-learning as its developers prefer to call it, is based on systems that combine digital television, the Internet, and the computer. It enables text, graphics and television pictures to be brought together on a TV or computer screen. And because it is interactive it can be used as a classroom tool - with individual students or the whole class - or for learning at home.
Leading British television companies have already grasped the huge commercial potential of e-learning, both at home and abroad. The Government, meanwhile, has been quick to recognise its educational benefits and is busy playing midwife to the emerging digital learning market.
In recent months, three of the main media players - the BBC, Granada and Anglia Multimedia - have been taking part in trials set up by the Department for Education and Employment to pioneer a digital GCSE curriculum.
At stake is a pound;100 million contract which promises profoundly to change not only the way the curriculum is taught in schools, but also educational publishing and home learning.
The digital television service planned by Granada, Result, has the production values and commercial savvy one associates with independent television. Gone is the slow-paced traditional educational television programme, and in its place is a large number of video clips accessed via an Internet-supported package. It is an attempt to sell education to the learner, built upon a well-thought out structure. Granada sees the home market as the key to generating the revenue to support the development of its service.
The BBC's bid is based on its innovative Key Stage Three Interactive, a system developed in partnership with my school, Monkseaton high in Whitley Bay. It supports the national curriculum with a rich blend of television, the Internet, teachers on-line, quizzes and virtual reality.
One or more of these systems will be with us in September 2001, and further systems will follow in 2002, covering most of the subjects in key stage 4. The leading players are also planning to develop digital programmes to cover the entire national curriculum. And there will be other developments affecting schools and home larners outside the UK.
These changes promise a quantum leap forward in the way education is delivered. It is essential that schools grasp the opportunities e-learning offers, and begin the process now. Not only is e-learning highly motivating, it also offers vital skills that students will need to compete and survive in the multi-media world of tomorrow. If schools don't embrace these systems - and quickly - students and their families will do it anyway at home.
Schools will need to review their existing technology and decide whether the new digital courses are best received through their TV screens - using a set-top box or decoder - or on-line. The courses will also be available on CD-Rom.
The most fundamental change that digital learning will bring is simple: with this technology, learning can be delivered straight into homes as a matter of course, either through computers or digital television. This is the beginning of direct delivery of all forms of learning to homes. Educational services - both free and fee-paying - will become available to everyone.
There is no doubt that students like these systems and respond well to them - hardly surprising when millions of pounds are being spent on high production values, and on making them effective.
The potential income from capturing a market-leading position in providing learning services to home is enormous, as so many are willing to pay for better learning, particularly as we shift to a knowledge society. The companies involved know this, and are willing to invest to build their share of this potentially lucrative market.
One important change is that educational services and resources will no longer be the exclusive preserve of schools and publishers. Parents willing to pay for educational success will purchase e-learning directly for their children. And in a global market, companies will be looking to move learning to a global curriculum, content, and approach.
Of course we don't yet know exactly how the learning process will change, but like the invention of the printing press, powered flight and tele-communications, we can be certain that e-learning will become a dominant feature of our society, and especially schools.
It would be all too simple to say that teachers will be reduced to the role of mentors, or that schools will disappear. The future, as always, will be more complex than that. But nothing will ever be quite the same again.
Paul Kelly is head of Monkseaton high school, Whitley Bay